Utah Education Network ordered to release records of sites banned by filtering software

Thursday, June 25, 1998

The Utah State Records Committee ordered the Utah Education Network (UEN) yesterday to release its log files of what sites have been blocked by SmartFilter, a software product installed in the computers at various Utah public schools.

Michael Sims, who lives in New York, petitioned the UEN under the state open records law in April to release the information. He requested it as part of his work with the Censorware Project, which he describes as “an all-volunteer group which intends to stimulate a national debate on the proper and constitutional uses of filtering software in the nation's schools, libraries and other institutions.”

UEN denied Sims' request in May, writing that “the Utah Education Network acts only as the custodian of the data and is not authorized to release those detailed logs.” The education network took the position that Sims would have to request the information from each individual school district.

Sims then appealed to the state records committee, which held a conference call yesterday to settle the issue. The 6-member board ruled that UEN must release the information to Sims after removing private identification information that would identify which particular computer was used in the effort to access a blocked Web site.

Jannette Goodall, executive secretary of the state records committee, said that this was done to “protect individual privacy concerns.”

Sims said he was happy with the decision and said he had expected to prevail. He said: “Students have First Amendment rights as well as adults. In a school setting, these can be somewhat constrained in order to keep the educational process on track, but the state should not be banning material which no reasonable person would consider harmful. And it shouldn't be banning material without disclosing what it bans, such as is currently the case in the Utah school system.

“Every Utah resident should be concerned when the state is giving discretion over students' education to a software company, not [to] a trained teacher, educator or public servant, and not subject to public review or scrutiny,” he said.

Sims said SmartFilter has blocked sites that discuss topics such as AIDS, hepatitis, abortion rights, Islam and gay rights. Peacefire, a group of young Net activists, includes on its Web page “SmartFilter Examined,” which lists a host of sites that have been blocked in the past by the filtering product.

Stephen Hess, executive director of the Utah Education Network, said: “I am not really unhappy with the decision. I do feel that the committee never really settled the question of who owns the data. Our contention all along has been that the individual school districts owned the data.

“Our response will be to go to the school districts and see if they have a problem with the committee's decision. The individual school districts will be the ones to decide whether an appeal will be filed to a state district court.”